From the Seattle Art Museum to AIA-award-winning homes, Lara Swimmer has photographed it all.
By Claire Butwinick
From colossal glass towers to Modern waterfront homes, Seattle-based architecture photographer Lara Swimmer has captured her city’s transformation from a sleepy fisherman’s town to an energized metropolis. Over her 20-plus year career, she has photographed some of Seattle’s most iconic civic and residential structures, telling the visual story of Pacific Northwest design and architecture. Her work has appeared in 27 exhibitions, five design books, and countless design publications, including Dezeen, Wallpaper*, and Metropolis. Last month, we caught up with Swimmer over Facetime to learn about how she got her career off the ground, her thoughts on Seattle’s ascent into a global city, and why the perfect shot is overrated.
Growing up, did you always have an interest in photography?
I would say yes. I went to this little private school in Kirkland, Washington with a dark room and I printed two memorable photographs in fourth or fifth grade. Later, in my second year of college, I was a darkroom monitor for my work-study job. I found art photography in college but I also took film. In my third year at the University of Pennsylvania, I went to France and did a film studies program. I was always doing film and photography, but then I needed to decide [between the two]. I thought I would go to film school to get an MFA in photography, but I realized I needed to work. So, I went back to Paris and worked at ELLE STUDIOS as a studio assistant doing fashion. My first actual architecture photography assignment was assisting on a museum shoot at the Musée Zadkine, honoring the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. It wasn’t a great experience working with the photographer, but shooting this space was memorable for sure, and made an imprint. That’s when I decided I had to go home [to Seattle] and pursue photography.
How did you get your career off the ground in Seattle?
I started doing construction photography. When I first came back in the late ‘90s, there were a lot of major civic projects on the brink and I started following them. I got contracts with the Paramount Theater, Benaroya Hall, and Key Arena, and eventually the Bellevue Arts Museum, McCaw Hall, the Seattle Art Museum and Sculpture Park, and culminating in the Central Library. That was my bread and butter for the next 10 years. My big break was photographing the EMP [now called the MoPOP]. I used a 4×5 camera and I went through several ⅘ film and medium format film cameras. I actually met my husband on that project. He was an architect at LMN and they did the interior spaces. That project went on for two years and I met so many people. In the end, the project manager told me they were hiring this other guy to do finished photography and I was like, “What about me? I’ve been here all along.” Learning they were going to go with someone else was tough. It’s not the kind of work I’d been doing, so I definitely needed to shift gears. That was the same time I started shooting differently. I began to put myself out there.
What has surprised you about Seattle’s ascent over the past few decades?
Seattle really is an international city now, but I think it’s scaling back again. There are still new luxury high rises—I just shot one last week—but I think things are settling down. To me, it’s always an honor to shoot a house. It’s so personal, intimate to shoot on a smaller scale. My approach with residential is also different; it’s a human versus public scale. I’ve done a lot more public and commercial than residential projects, so I always appreciate a residential assignment. Maybe Seattle is coming full-circle. Maybe because we got so many of our big civil projects out of the way, we can focus on small projects.
What are some musts when it comes to capturing Modern architecture versus historic preservations?
When shooting Modern buildings, whether it’s a big civic project, a library, or a house, you need to follow and pay attention to where your eyes go. You need to look for the vistas, how can you see throughout the space, and how architecture is creating the frames and the views. With modern buildings, you can take a lot of liberties and abstractions, and look for interesting angles. With the historic projects, you have to go for a more classical framing. You always want your big shots and as well as your details. I always ask myself: Where does your eye want to go? How does this architecture inform what you’re seeing?
One thing I appreciate about your photography is your effortless balance between nature and architecture. Could you expand on that?
I don’t know if that’s a Modern architecture or Northwest thing, but I’ve noticed there’s a lot of attention toward connecting the inside and outside. I photographed George Suyama’s work a while ago. He’s a master. Certainly, nature is a huge influence on his architecture. I know architects also think about light, where nature is, and how they incorporate that into their space. I’ve shot a lot of commercial and residential projects that bring the light inside.
Can you take me through a typical shoot day?
I should start off by saying no day is typical. What I love about what I get to do is that no day is the same. There’s so much to figure out as you go. I always say to my assistants that the key is to be creative and flexible. The weather will never cooperate, so you have to be ready to anticipate anything. The two things I can’t control are the readiness of the site and the weather, so I don’t get upset. There’s a lot to get upset about in the world and these are just more things we can’t control. I try to let go of that.
How do you know when you got the perfect shot?
It’s interesting that you asked me that. I would say that the perfect shot or the money shot is a myth. There are times where you get the “perfect shot” but I don’t think one photo tells the story. Because of my background in documentation, I think a lot of images come together to create the full picture, as opposed to a single view. I’m sort of against the perfect shot, the money shot—I find it a cringy term.
How has your style evolved over the years?
Everything has changed. It’s not just that my style has changed, it’s that now designers are creating such high-end rendering and using CGI that the expectation is for photos to look surreal. It isn’t something your eye would naturally see. There are so many ways to make photos look seductive and spellbinding, but I think that changes the way we collectively see. I think that human adjustments in photography have affected the expectations for what we produce. There are a lot of things that need to look as they [naturally] do, but there’s a lot of liberty in delivering something that’s more hyperreal.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
My job is rewarding on many levels. I love to get in the groove on a shoot. The ultimate cherry on top is when a project is published. Like, “Wow, the pictures were compelling enough to get in something.” And awards are great, as well. One of my smaller school projects, that was shot twice in the rain, just won a national AIA CAE award. It’s great to feel like I have facilitated the advancement of my client’s work. [But at the end of the day,] I would say when you’re in a groove, everything’s moving, it feels great.
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